Why You Don’t Need Color Theory (Editorial)

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When it comes to painting miniatures, color theory is one of those things that a lot of people seem to think is necessary. However, in reality, you don’t need it. Sure, it can be helpful in some ways, but it’s not absolutely essential.

In this article, I write as a working artist who doesn’t rely on theory to create. I’m not saying that theory is bad, or that it has no place in art. I’m simply saying that it’s not necessary, and that you can do just fine without it.


What is Color Theory?

Let’s begin with a quick definition of color theory. In a nutshell, it’s a set of guidelines for using color. It covers topics like complementary colors, the color wheel, and various color schemes.

color wheel for color theory - You don't need color theory to painting miniatures - miniature painting and color theory -
This is a color wheel. A color wheel is a tool that artists use to help them create harmonious color schemes. It’s a circle divided into twelve broad segments, each of which represents a different hue. The hues are arranged in a way that makes them easy to remember and work with.

You can read much more about color theory in other articles or books. But, as someone who paradoxically writes instructional guides on various things, I can tell that when it comes to painting miniatures, you really don’t need to know any of the theory.

You don't need color theory to painting miniatures - miniature painting and color theory - a book cover about color theory in art
I do recommend this book for those of you looking for a definitive reference about color use in art and illustration.

In fact, thinking about colors too much–dwelling on the idea that some color combos are “bad” or “good”–can hold you back from achieving your most satisfying work. More about this below.


How to Use Color Theory in Miniature Painting

If you’re trying to decide on a new paint scheme for your Warhammer army or other miniature collection, there are a few ways you can choose a color palette.

You don't need color theory to painting miniatures - miniature painting and color theory - wet palette with acrylic paint thinned on it
Sometimes you can tell if colors work well together before you apply them to your model. This is particularly true if you use a wet palette with space to spread out your paint swatches.

Color theory in this case is just a single approach among many. For example, other ways you can find the colors that work together for your miniature painting is to look to real-world examples, like historical paint schemes or the colors found in nature.

The key to painting with color is to understand your preferences, what you find beautiful and attractive about different looks, styles, and mimic that in your work.

You don't need color theory to painting miniatures - miniature painting and color theory - a natural landscape photo
I’d rather spend my time thinking and enjoying this image, rather than digging into charts and wheels.
You don't need color theory to painting miniatures - miniature painting and color theory - color theory choosing color harmony
Using a color wheel to help you find the “best” color combinations for your miniature painting is useful. But, this process can take the fun out of the process of making unique art happen.

Achieving a Satisfying Paint Job

One of the main reasons I don’t recommend worrying too much about color theory is that it can hold you back from fully expressing your creative vision.

For example, let’s say you’re trying to come up with a color scheme for a new army of miniatures. You might find yourself limited by what you think “looks good” according to color theory.

You don't need color theory to painting miniatures - miniature painting and color theory - narrative photography tells a story and makes your work more compelling and engaging for viewers
A good paint job can tell a story.

But, in reality, there are no right or wrong colors. The only thing that really matters is what you like and what makes you happy with the results.

Inside your brain, your mind’s eye, is a vision of what you love about seeing painted miniatures on the tabletop, display case, or even the box art from the model’s kit.

You don't need color theory to painting miniatures - miniature painting and color theory - flesh tones and oil paints on a miniature face
I painted this miniature using oil paints. Oil paints give you a bit of freedom to play with color. The slow drying nature of oil paints gives you an opportunity to make mistakes (as compared with acrylics), to experiment, and to discover ways to make your painting unique.

Work towards bringing that image to life, regardless of what color theory says. Hey, and if you need to copy someone else’s colors to get there; you know what? That’s okay, too!

As a miniature painter, you’re not bound by anyone else’s rules. You have creative license to do whatever you want. So, don’t be afraid to break the “rules” of color theory, if it means achieving a look that’s more satisfying for you.


Let Inspiration Be Your Guide

So, if color theory can be helpful in some ways, why am I saying that you don’t need it?

Well, there are a few reasons why color theory isn’t necessary:

  • First, as I mentioned before, theory can hold you back from fully expressing your creative vision. If you’re too worried about following the “rules” of color theory, you might miss out on creating something that’s truly unique and special.
  • Second, painting miniatures is all about creativity and having fun. So, if you find that color theory is stressing you out or making the process less enjoyable, then it’s probably not worth your time.
  • Third, and perhaps most importantly, there are many other ways to choose colors that work together. So, if you’re struggling with color theory, don’t worry! Just look to other sources of inspiration.
You don't need color theory to painting miniatures - miniature painting and color theory - loading your brush in a dry palette

Inspiration is all around you. Just take a look at the world around you and find the colors that you love. Then, use those colors in your painting. As someone who enjoys taking photos when I travel or simply out and about on a walk somewhere, I often use those images as inspiration for new color schemes.

I also find a lot of inspiration from looking at other artists’ work, whether that’s other painters, illustrators, or even fashion designers.

Science needs art, because art has empathy

More Empathy

The important thing is to find what inspires you and use that to guide your color choices. If you’re really stuck, just remember that you can also find inspiration in nature, books, magazines, movies, TV shows, and more. Just about anything can be a source of inspiration for your miniature painting.

The bottom line is that you don’t need to worry about color theory. Just find what inspires you and let that be your guide.


What About “Painting Technique”?

Now, you might be thinking, “But wait! What about painting technique? Isn’t that important?”

And, this is certainly related to this idea that you are imprisoned within concepts, ideas , or “rules” that someone else has created.

The answer is that, yes, painting technique is important. But, it’s not nearly as important as you might think. In fact, I would argue that the vast majority of miniature painters out there don’t really know much about painting technique at all.

And, that’s perfectly fine!

Indeed, I have a popular guide about color blending techniques, but do you have to know them to create beautiful work? Nope!

You don't need color theory to painting miniatures - miniature painting and color theory - a work in progress chaos warhammer model

You see, the truth is that painting miniatures is more about creativity and having fun than it is about technique. So, don’t worry if you don’t know all the “proper” techniques. Just do what feels right for you and what makes you happy with the results.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with learning more about painting technique. But, don’t feel like you need to know everything before you start painting. Just jump in and have fun!

You don't need color theory to painting miniatures - miniature painting and color theory - miniature painting is more than theory

Oh, and I won’t get you bogged down about tools, brushes, and all that either. Certainly, all of these “things” are important. But, tools and such are just a means to an end. They’re not nearly as important as your creativity, imagination, and vision.


Summary

In the end, it’s up to you whether or not you want to worry about color theory or painting technique. Just remember that you don’t need to know everything before you start painting. Just find what inspires you and let that be your guide.

It’s what I do. I just dive in with an idea and try and make it all happen with whatever resources I have in front of me.

Did the long-forgotten cave dwellers have fancy things to guide their illustrations on underground rock and mineral? And, yet there they are; their creations still resonate with us to this day.

So, what’s my point? Just go out there and create something you’re proud of! That’s all that really matters in the end.

Questions? Comments? Leave a message below!

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